Getting Energy Right

Lucretius Corvo: What will happen when [the power gauges] reach the maximum?
Corellus: As my tutors on Mars would say, Captain, the Omnissiah acts mysteriously. The ways of the Motive Force may be understood, from positive to negative and on through the circuit. That which guides it may not.
Lucretius Corvo: You do not know.
Corellus: No. That is what they generally meant when they said that.
Dialogue between Lucretius Corvo and Techmarine Correlus of the Ultramarines. – Guy Haley, Pharos

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

The other week, I had the pleasure of delivering the keynote speech to the Just Transition Partnership’s Reclaiming Our Energy conference where I gave a (not completely impartial, but at least honest) appraisal of the Scottish Government’s draft energy statement. As of the time of writing, the recording of the full conference isn’t yet online (I’ll link to it here when it is) however I included the audio of my presentation in this week’s Policy Podcast.

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Scotland Deserves Local Democracy

“Nationalism can be a destructive force when it promotes intolerance and division. But it can also be a force for good, when it seeks to defend local autonomy against the homogenizing forces of larger entities.” – Maxime Bernier

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)


At the last UK General Election, the party that would go on to form the Government made a manifesto promise to increase police numbers across the whole of the UK. It was a popular policy and probably won a few votes, but there was a problem with meeting that policy. Policing is a devolved matter. The UK Government only has control over the police in England. They could, of course, invest heavily in police numbers and that investment would increase the Block Grant sent to devolved nations but there’s absolutely no guarantee that the money would be used to increase the number of cops in Scotland. There would be a certain amount of political pressure to “pass the money on” as intended and that pressure has certainly been sufficient in the past, but the structure of devolution means that the Scottish Government has the absolute right to spend the money on anything it sees fit. This makes perfect sense as the needs and demands of policing in Scotland might well be very different from that in England as might the style of policing – Scotland simply may not want or need a highly militarised, American style force designed to suppress any thought of democratic protest. Anyway, the people of Scotland didn’t vote for the policy at the last Scottish election so there was no mandate to act at all.

Westminster’s defence was that it simply didn’t trust the calibre of politicians in Holyrood to act responsibly and it didn’t really matter what they thought given that they were either safely compliant or could be written off as merely the opposition complaining for the sake of complaining (damned if you do; damned if you don’t). The UK Government really wanted to meet that manifesto pledge however and decided it wouldn’t look good if the devolved nations resist their will so it took steps. Three options were available. They could, with ease, simply pull the powers over policing away from the Scottish Government and place them in the hands of the UK Justice Minister. All that would take is a simple majority vote in the Commons, which they could easily whip through. The second option was to ring-fence the funding – to simply tell the Scottish Government that they weren’t getting it unless they promised to use it as the UK Government wanted. Finally, they could outright threaten Holyrood with “financial penalties” if they tried to divert the money elsewhere.

If this happened, I’m sure that Holyrood’s response would be similar to yours – one of democratic outrage and calls for Westminster to back off and stop stepping on the toes of devolution. How dare they even make a manifesto promise that lay outwith their powers?

Do we all share the same outrage when the Scottish Government does something similar to Scottish Local Authorities?

Scotland is one of the most centralised states in Europe (especially as we don’t have an actually-local tier of municipal government – our “Local” Authorities would be called Regional Government almost everywhere else in Europe). In fact, if Scottish independence resulted merely in all reserved powers at Westminster transferring to Holyrood then a single national Government would directly control more than 85% of all public spending in Scotland. This figure is even worse when we consider the amount of money that is ring-fenced by Holyrood and merely administered by Councils. Holyrood has in recent years directly threatened Councils with withheld funds unless Councils used their powers over one of the few taxes that they actually control to maintain the Council Tax freeze and, just last week, has actively threatened to fine Councils unless they use money as directed to boost teacher numbers. Meanwhile, John Swinney’s recent budget stated that he was using Holyrood’s powers “to the maximum extent that is responsible” which carries the implication that using Holyrood’s powers to pass reforms to Local Authority tax raising powers would be “irresponsible”.

This week, Scottish Local Authorities having been negotiating their budgets for the year. It’s a grim process. Folk I’ve spoken to in several councils and across multiple parties have been essentially saying that they’re being put in the position of either breaking the law by not passing a budget or breaking the law by passing a budget that causes active harm to people because of the inevitable cuts to social services. After years of “trimming the fat”, then “cutting to the bone”, Councils are at the point of outright amputations – simply closing down leisure centres or stopping care services for folk who need them. If you’ve seen more potholes in your local roads due to the last rounds of cuts then we might expect them to not get repaired or to get worse in coming years.

The strictures of Devolution are tight but they are not nearly as tight as the Scottish Government have implied. Whenever groups like ourselves have campaigned for the broadening of the Scottish tax base via tools like Council Tax reform, land taxes, wealth taxes or pollution taxes, we’re told that the Scottish Government doesn’t have the power to do so. This is only a half-truth. These taxes cannot be implemented as national taxes controlled by Holyrood and where the revenue flows to Holyrood, but many of them can be implemented if they are done so as local taxes where the revenue flows to the relevant Local Authority.

In 2013, the Scottish Government made its pledge towards treatment of Local Government, including promises of maintaining subsidiarity and local decision-making. More recently, they have pledged a reform of local government finances, guided by a Citizens’ Assembly, by the end of this Parliament though they’ve also made it clear that the reforms themselves would only be implemented beyond the next electoral horizon (should they be in power to do so). It is likely far too late now to give Local Authorities the powers to avert a budget crisis this year and I’ve yet to see willingness from Government to spend their way out of this hole – we’ll see soon what the implications of that will be – but this only heightens the urgent need for reform of Scotland’s finances and democratic frameworks to make them more sustainable and to avoid this kind of crisis in the future. Enabling legislation should be passed as soon as possible to give Councils more control over their own finances and to set local taxes as they deem appropriate, including in areas such as wealth, land and pollution.

With the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon this week and the SNP now likely to fight a leadership contest that hasn’t been seen in the party essentially for decades, it would be worth all candidates considering their pitch not just as one where they believe that they are the best personality to lead the party and, likely, the country but also one where they consider their policy pitch and agenda for their tenure. I will be watching closely to see if any of the candidates promise to uphold and accelerate those pledges. Who knows, we might even end up with something really radical – like the kind of truly local democracy that almost all of our peer nations in Europe simply call “normal”.

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Oil Be Back

“Oil creates the illusion of a completely changed life, life without work, life for free. Oil is a resource that anaesthetises thought, blurs vision, corrupts.” – Ryszard Kapuściński

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)


Who won the energy crisis? The obvious answer is “not us”. The bank accounts of the oil barons are absolutely glowing right now with all of the major corporations publishing their 2022 profit figures this week. Many of them are showing record levels of profit while folk are freezing in their houses despite this being one of the mildest winters in UK history. Shell announced profits of $40 billion, BP made $28 billion, Norwegian state-owned Equinor made $79 billion and Exxon – who infamously predicted with “shocking accuracy” the climate change impact of their operations almost 50 years ago but covered up the data and kept on going – made $56 billion.

A large chunk of these profits will go towards share buybacks – where the company reduces the amount of shares in the company out there in the wild and therefore increases the value and the voting power of remaining holders – but much of it will go out in dividends. You paid more than you ever have to keep your house colder than it’s ever been but all that did was make someone else richer.

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The News Where You Are Not

“So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here–not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.” – Hunter S. Thompson

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

I had a fascinating discussion on the Policy Podcast the other week. I spoke to a couple of our comrades at Melin Drafod, a Welsh pro-indy think tank who recently published a report on the fiscal position of an independent Wales (while they don’t directly reference any of our similar work for an independent Scotland, it’s very interesting to see how the same structural weaknesses in devolution rear their head and how the same international principles and precedents also apply to Wales in similar ways to Scotland).  They also organised a strategy seminar at the weekend attended by Robin on behalf of Common Weal and also by many members of the Welsh independence movement such as Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price. It’s a fascinating discussion and I encourage you all to listen to it.

During the discussion a very interesting question was raised that has been burrowing into my head since. I asked a question about the state of the UK’s media and how it plays its role in the unity of the British State. I reflected that from where I am it looks largely like Scotland has its own local media – much of it fragmented, underfunded or taking its orders from elsewhere, but some of it doing at least as best it can to tell us about what’s happening in Scotland – and then there is the UK media that gives a view of and from London. Never mind that we suffer from a limited outlook on and of the rest of the world, what we often lack is a view of the rest of the UK. I’d hazard that unless you have a specific interest in looking for information about it, you probably don’t really know all that much about what’s going on in Northern Ireland, or Wales, or Cornwall or even right across the border in the North of England (unless you live in the South of Scotland and get ITV Border from Cumbria rather than STV). Not unless whatever is happening is “big enough” to affect London in some way…then it gets noticed. I asked if the view from Wales was similar and my guests more or less confirmed it with the caveat that Scottish local news media is probably stronger than in Wales, especially after the sad demise of their iteration of The National newspaper.

Now here’s the question that has been niggling at me. I can see why things would be set up this way. Paymasters for a highly centralised state with a highly centralised economy probably want to know what is happing around them and around them is London. When cuts come, it’s easier to cut away at the periphery (i.e. everywhere else) and so local media erodes away. It’s also possibly true that the UK’s centralising political agenda is reinforcing itself through that media. What used to be a “Precious Union” of voluntarily associating states is being rapidly reframed as a unitary state of “Britain” and a unitary state requires a unitary message over and above any rustic notions of regional distinctiveness. So by broadcasting the same “London-First” message out to the provinces, you can ensure that they all hear the same message, sing the same song and believe in the same vision for the country. This whole state of affairs was hilariously and wonderfully illustrated in James Robertson’s poem “The News Where You Are”.

But is that strategy working? In one sense, keeping England relatively ignorant about Scotland (except insofar as the “national” message that Scotland is heavily subsidised by the UK is starting to stick in the “wrong” places), or Scotland relatively ignorant about Wales or vice versa has its role in dividing us from those who we would otherwise be standing in solidarity with. If we can’t see them, we can’t see our differences, sure, but we also can’t see our common strengths either.

This is something I see done much, much better in countries around – and even across – Europe. Organisations like Arte do a fantastic job of showcasing the best of Europe in a way that really does foster a common sense of “Europeness” because of all of its cultural corners, not in spite of them.
(And if you want a view of Scotland from the continent right now, then I can’t recommend enough their recent documentary on the current bedraggled state of the independence movement and compare it to one by dbate from a couple of years before. The light might be on for Scotland in Europe, but we have to understand what is being illuminated by it)

However the strategy of only broadcasting “the news where we are” might also be reaching its limit. Not only because access to information is generally easier these days (“generally” because access to MISinformation has never been easier and the search engines that act as our primary gatekeeper on the internet are straining under the weight of that misinformation combined with information-free “SEO” techniques and AI-driven confident-but-mindless drivel) but because there might well be another narrative forming in the minds of those who receive that news from where we are not. Namely, that if all of us around the periphery of the UK are seeing only the London-eye view of the “Precious Union” then that becomes our only point of contact with that Union. Then we who, as James Robertson said, can each see who we are end up comparing ourselves to that single point of contact. Of course, none of us really do. And so we start to question why we might want to stay in a union that doesn’t represent us, who we are or who we want to be. Ironically, if the Union celebrated the commonalities of all of us, it might have done more to bring us all together. It might even learn a little about itself and about us in the process and be all the stronger for it.

I’d really like to chew on this idea a bit more. Especially why the centre of the Union appears unable now to do precisely that and instead has resorted simply to trying to deny independence through sheer force of will. If you are involved in media circles and would like to discuss this and other aspects of the media in Britain on the Podcast then please do get in touch. Till then, let’s all try and do a bit more to look out into the world, to find out about our kindred spirits elsewhere and to see the news where we are not.

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